Lohengrin: R. Wagenführer
Elsa: E. Magee
Friedrich von Telramund: H. Welker
Ortrud: Luana DeVol
Herald: E.W. Schulte
Orchestra and chorus of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino
Conductor: J. Jones
Stage director: L. Ronconi
Torino, Teatro Regio
After nearly three decades, Lohengrin returned in grand style by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at Florence's Teatro Comunale. This edition boasted an excellent cast in Luca Ronconi's production, which emphasized the ceremonial side of the stage action and the text's inherent nationalism. The controversy surrounding Giuseppi Sinopoli's dismissal as music director seemed not to have taken any toll on the participants, and once again the Maggio demonstrated its capacity to successfully put on the most demanding entries in the operatic repertory.
Florence is one of the Italian cities where Wagner's works have been most fortunate. With regards to Lohengrin, In 1871 Florence saw it a month after its Italian premiere in Bologna, although the opera had circulated in score form for two decades. Casts in this century at the Comunale have included Tebaldi, Pertile and Stignani, who utilized Olimpio Cescatti's highly singable Italian translation. The trend toward original language buttressed by the propitious invention of surtitles has claimed this version as a victim, all but eliminating Italian singers in today's casts.
Stage director Luca Ronconi's principal concept was to demarcate the separate space that Elsa inhabited as distinct from the remainder of the characters. This became an elevated framed square in Margherita Palli's set, where only Lohengrin had access to Elsa's realm. The last act bridal chamber was the same square, but with a white floral array in front. Chorus mostly entered and left via moving platforms or rolling bleacher sections; Lohengrin's Act I swordfight with Telramund took place on a catwalk across the front. Selected stage directions and quotes from the libretto were projected in red lettering along the sides of the set. The (in)famous "Für deutsches Land das deutsches Schwert!" (For a German land, a German sword.) was among these. Ronconi also made an aside on the nature of theater by exposing what appeared to be the rear stage wall, but in actuality changed with each act. Ronconi's placement of the chorus was especially good for the second scene of Act II, but having them reading the Bridal Chorus from scores on stands was a bit too precious.
The main problem with this vision is that the opera's themes have far greater depth. The struggle between paganism (Ortrud) and Christianity (Lohengrin) with eventual victory for the latter is at the libretto's heart. Here Wagner was less an advocate of the German/Nordic legacy than for nineteenth-century ideas about progress. While the opera seems eminently exploitable for nationalistic interests, it ultimately defeats that intent because of the moralizing tone. Vera Marzot used the traditional white and light blue for Lohengrin's costume with more white for Elsa, while the King and male chorus wore identical dark uniforms. In the last scene, a few of the men sported the same black quilted jackets that could be found on the street outside the Teatro Comunale. Guido Levi's lighting cues were not always well coordinated with the stage action. English conductor Julia Jones arrived fresh from Basel where she also conducted Lohengrin. At this performance-perhaps wisely given the massive stage and pit forces-she made her dramatic points more by contrasts in dynamics rather than tempi. Hers is a solid interpretation that will surely grow with time. Apart from a shaky English horn, the orchestra played with distinction.
For this run, the Maggio chorus (in blonde wigs) was supplemented by the Krakow Philharmonic men's chorus, which made for an unusually visceral impact in the finales of each act. Maybe this was overkill, given the high standards of José Luis Basso's ensemble. Noteworthy were the pianos that the chorus achieved in the more tender moments in the score.In the title role, tenor Roland Wagenführer made a strong impression as Wagner's knight, both in his acting and vocally. He can be heard in the big ensembles, and at times he sounds quite close to Ben Heppner, the Lohengrin of the moment. Allowing more head voice to become part of his vocal output and greater use of glottal attacks on initial vowels will help him retain his current freshness that this part demands. His Elsa, Emily Magee, matched his youthful sound, and together they achieved an intensity especially in the
first scene of act III that one rarely encounters in this work. Magee possesses not only the needed sweet but penetrating voice but also has the strong low notes that Wagner asked for. The other pair made less of an impression. Harmut Welker's Telramund had a lot of class, but Luana DeVol's Ortrud was short on vocal impact. She was plagued by particularly dreadful costumes, but most of all she needed better stage direction. Kurt Rydl was also hampered by direction and costuming that denied prominence to his King Heinrich. Although Rydl is always a welcome presence on stage, his is not the true bass that this role requires. Eike Wilm Schulte's clarion-toned Herald was outstanding; this will be an artist to watch.
The audience responded warmly to the soloists and conductor. Contrary to the norm at performances of Lohengrin in New York, very nearly all of the patrons stayed until the end.